Monica Hesse | American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land | Liveright | August 2017 | 17 minutes (4,100 words)
In the middle of the night on December 15, 2012, Lois Gomez sat up in bed. She thought she heard something. She listened. Nothing. Maybe she was wrong, maybe she hadn’t heard anything. She went to the kitchen for a drink of water. It was two or three in the morning, only a few hours before her shift at Perdue and her husband’s shift at Tyson. Now she definitely heard something. A banging on her front door — which in itself was odd; friends and family knew they always used the side entrance — and someone yelling: “Your garage is on fire! I’ve already called 911!”
She stood frozen in the kitchen trying to process the information. Christmas lights, she thought. Her outdoor Christmas lights were halfway up, but she and her husband had recently decided to visit his family in Texas for the holiday and she’d been trying to figure out whether to bother with the rest of the decorations, which were meanwhile stored in the family’s detached garage, which was now on fire. Christmas lights, along with the expensive music equipment for her son’s rock band.
It had been a rough couple of months. For one thing, she wasn’t getting along with her next-door neighbors. She’d been close with the woman who’d owned that house before, Susan Bundick. They brought each other dinner sometimes, or stood and chatted in their backyards. But one Sunday afternoon, Lois was outside emptying the aboveground backyard pool to close out the summer season, and she saw the police were at Susan’s house. They told Lois her neighbor had died. Now, Susan’s daughter lived in her mother’s old house and things weren’t as pleasant. Tonya was fine, kept to herself, but Lois had a few run-ins with Tonya’s new boyfriend, a squirrelly redheaded guy whose name she didn’t know. He’d done a few little things, like dumping a bunch of branches on their lawn instead of disposing of them like he was supposed to. Once he’d accused her of making racial slurs against Tonya’s kids. The accusation was ridiculous. Lois’s husband was from Mexico, and her four grandchildren were partly black.
She’d also been having nightmares about the arsonist. In one dream, she went into her kitchen late at night and saw someone racing through the yard, an intruder wearing dark-colored sweat pants and a hoodie. “What are you doing?” she called. The figure turned and looked at her but she still couldn’t see his face, and he eventually disappeared behind her detached garage. She woke up and realized it wasn’t real.
This night wasn’t a dream, though.
She went outside, where flames were leaping from the garage. She watched the dissolution of her Christmas ornaments, and her son’s band equipment, and all the other things people stick in garages and toolsheds when they don’t want to get rid of something but aren’t ready to say good-bye. Numbly, she realized that whoever had lit the garage on fire had also taken the time to let out the chickens. They had been kept in a pen attached to the building and they were now running all over the lawn at three in the morning.
It was the thirtieth fire.
By now, it was a strange time to live in the neighborhood.
Reports of arsons were appearing almost daily on the local TV news as reporters strained their thesauruses looking for new words to describe fire, and ended up just saying “blazed” a lot. The newspapers, the Eastern Shore News and the Eastern Shore Post, operated with shoestring staffs, a handful of reporters apiece who covered everything from local politics to local basketball games in print editions that had been reduced to twice a week. Now they were covering the biggest news of the decade.
By the time Lois and Miguel’s garage lit up, they already had friends whose properties had burned, in what was becoming a real fear for anyone who owned a structure that looked even slightly decrepit. People were filled with — well, “paranoia” wasn’t the right word for it, not exactly, because paranoia meant that the thing you feared wasn’t likely to actually happen. These fires could happen, did happen, every night, all the time.
It was hard to pinpoint one moment when people realized what a big deal the serial arsonist was. Was it fire number seventeen, a big rental house worth $95,000, a lot of money for the Eastern Shore? Was it fire number thirty-four, the house on Front Street? That one was abandoned, but it wasn’t isolated like the others. It was right in downtown Accomac, just a few blocks from the courthouse. If the wind had gone the wrong way, that fire could have taken out the whole town.
Maybe it was fire number fifteen, a little house directly across the street from state police investigators Rob Barnes’s and Glenn Neal’s offices. That fire wasn’t even called into 911 — Neal saw it himself as he was driving back from an interdepartmental meeting about the arsons. He was on his cell phone, talking to the director of the 911 Center about how the meeting had gone, and said, “Well, shit, man, the house is on fire. I gotta go.” It was so blatant. Fire fifteen had a message, and the message seemed like it was Screw you.
After a little while, watching the fires was akin to seeing a set of china stacked precariously on the edge of a table and knowing it would fall but not knowing when. Or watching someone squeeze and squeeze a balloon and trying to prepare for the inevitable pop. Every single place people shopped or worked or went for coffee or got the car repaired, they would wonder if the arsonist was standing next to them in line. Facebook pages developed: “Who is trying to burn down Accomack County?” and “Arson in Accomack” and “Who is setting these fires? And how will they be stopped?”
On one of those pages, somebody reported that there was a scanner app that could be downloaded onto smartphones, so that listeners could hear about 911 calls at the same time the cops did. Everybody took that advice, and shortly after, somebody else noticed a different thing: one of the features of the app was that it showed users which cities it was most popular in, a top ten list. There was a period of time in late 2012 and early 2013 when number three was New York City and number two was Los Angeles, and the number one place where people were listening for crime data on their phones was Accomack County, Virginia.
The national news media had arrived, eventually. The story beckoned because of the sheer vastness of it — the almost comically large number of incidents taking place in a locale that brought with it a ready-made atmosphere. To journalists and professional storytellers, crimes are always more interesting when they happen in folksy, safe communities than when they happen in big cities; there’s a reason that Twin Peaks was set in a small Washington State logging community and not in New York.
[pullquote align=”center”]There was a period of time in late 2012 and early 2013 when number three was New York City and number two was Los Angeles, and the number one place where people were listening for crime data on their phones was Accomack County, Virginia.[/pullquote]
But there were other reasons why the Accomack fires were so appealing to the American public at large. Big-name crimes have a way of becoming big name not only because of the crimes themselves but because of the story they tell about the country at the moment. The infamous bank robbers of the 1930s — Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Frank “Jelly” Nash — were stealing money at a time when hardly any- one had any, when Dust Bowl poverty made such thefts seem, if not justified, then at least understandable. The 1920s jazz killers — women who murdered their husbands and blamed it on the music — did so in an era where the country was grappling with rapidly loosening morals and a newly liberated female populace, which had just gotten the vote.
And now here were arsons, happening in the type of rural environment that had been figuratively burning down for several decades, whether in the midwestern Rust Belt or the southern Bible Belt, or the hills of Appalachia. Underrepresented in television shows and media. Left behind when industries changed or factories moved. Residents in places like these represented the “real America” that national politicians always seemed to talk about when they wanted votes. The America that had caused President Obama to found the White House Rural Council in 2011 to “promote economic prosperity and quality of life in rural communities.” Obama had recently been elected into office for a second term, but the vast majority of people in rural places — 61 percent — hadn’t voted for him. The United States was still recovering from a crippling recession that had bitterly divided the nation in terms of where its money should go. Should the country continue farm subsidies, which sent billions of dollars every year to less-populated counties? (Between 1995 and 2014, Accomack received nearly $68 million.) How much money should go to supporting affordable housing in rural areas? In 2010, the government-backed 502 Direct Loan program, which provided funds to buy or rehabilitate rural dwellings, was funded at $2.1 billion; three years later the number was $828 million.
This was not the story of Accomack. This was the story of America. In 1910, back in the peak of the Eastern Shore’s wealth, more than 70 percent of Americans lived in rural counties. It was the norm, it was the standard. Now, rural counties contained only 15 percent of the nation’s population.
The people who did stay in rural places got older. The median age of a United States citizen was thirty-seven in the 2010 census; in Accomack it was forty-four. There were counties out in the western part of the country — big, cowboy counties — where the median age now approached sixty, populated by residents who didn’t want to leave but who knew they didn’t have the amenities to make younger folks stay. “It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with the folks in rural America,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had said in a December 2012 speech. “Rural America, with a shrinking population, is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we better recognize it and we better begin to reverse it.”
Rural America was a theoretical place that took up a large, romantic space in the American imagination. The people who lived there had cultivated the nation. They had fed the nation and nurtured its soul. Thoreau had to go find the countryside to write Walden. The poet Elinor Wylie had to go find the countryside to write “Wild Peaches” in 1925. In fact, she had to go find the Eastern Shore: “When the world turns completely upside down,” she wrote, “you say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore.”
You’ll wear a coonskin cap, and I a gown Homespun,
dyed butternut’s dark gold color
Lost, like your lotus-eating ancestor
We’ll swim in milk and honey till we drown.
The imagery was beautiful, it was wistful, it was evocative, it was eerie. But what did it mean in real life? What did it mean in the modern world? What things were worth holding on to and what things had to be relinquished? America fretted about its rural parts, and arson was an ideal criminal metaphor for 2012.
Charlie Rose was about as national as you could get, a newscaster with CBS This Morning. He’d sent down a reporter from his show to get the story on the ground. “Someone is waging war on rural Virginia,” Rose said to his viewing audience from behind his desk in New York. “Their weapon of choice is fire. Chip Reid is in the town of Tasley on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Chip, good morning.”
Chip Reid, a reporter with CBS This Morning, had come to Accomack with a camera crew. He interviewed the pizza maker at the Club Car Cafe and asked lunching locals how the fires had changed their lives. He visited the Parksley fire station with Phil Kelley, who had been dispatched as a local fireman representative. Before the cameras were even rolling, Reid and Kelley drove around together, Kelley in a carefully selected sweatshirt with the fire company’s logo, and Reid in an expensive-looking, tundra-ready parka. Kelley pointed out the locations of some fires and explained the equipment and terminology of firefighting, and Reid made Kelley feel comfortable by conducting a pre-interview, a casual conversation to ready Kelley with the kinds of questions he could expect to be asked when the camera was on.
“The arsonist is almost like a ghost,” Kelley offered, thinking of the way nobody had seen him slip into or out of any buildings yet. Reid’s eyes lit up, as Kelley remembered, and he told Kelley that the ghost metaphor was a really good one. Then the cameraman started to film.
“What’s your biggest worry?” Reid asked Kelley on air.
“My big worry is, of course, my people first,” Kelley said. “I mean, there’s no need to risk somebody’s life for an abandoned building. But then, how far is this going to escalate?”
“When you arrive on these scenes, what goes through your mind?” Reid asked.
“Total amazement,” Kelley said.
“Amazement. No one’s seen him. It’s like,” he paused, trying to pretend it had come to him just now, naturally. “It’s like a ghost.”
“Like a ghost?” Reid said.
“Like a ghost.”
Nobody would deny that it was an awful time to be a firefighter — relentless late nights and permanent dark circles under the eyes. But it wasn’t all bad. They’d suddenly become heroes; famous in a way people from Accomack never expected to become famous and in a way most of them never would be again.
Over at the fire department in Tasley, Jeff Beall had gone on the local broadcasts so many times it had become rote. He gave good quotes, and he had a frank, matter-of-fact speaking style that appealed to journalists. Shannon Bridges got used to turning on the morning news and seeing the recording of her work from the previous night, her sooty pink helmet, bobbing in the background of wherever was the latest burning.
For decades in this county, firehouses had been the center of social life. Fire stations held fall chili cook-offs, summer barbecues, year-round bingo tournaments. Every October, the Tasley station had taken a donated patch of woods and turned it into a haunted forest, with hay wagons full of passengers being slowly pulled past ghosts and zombies. It was the highlight of the Halloween season.
But that way of life had been hard to hold on to, not just in Accomack, but all around the country. Enrollment in volunteer fire departments had declined nationwide with 11 percent fewer volunteers than in the 1980s. It was a money issue and a time issue: Volunteers who used to learn on the job alongside their fathers were now required to complete hundreds of hours of coursework before they could become certified, often at their own expense. As fire safety improved, the cost of equipment had ballooned (one self-contained breathing apparatus cost $5,000) and the time dedicated to fund-raising for that equipment had ballooned, too, with volunteer departments nationwide spending an estimated 60 percent of their time raising money. For all of the myriad reasons that young men and women set out to join fire departments — excitement, public service, community, a sense of duty — it was difficult to believe that any of them would have cited, as a primary reason, “bake sale.” One study by the U.S. Fire Administration, about retention rates among volunteer firefighters, found a few factors unique to rural places, one being the replacement of small Main Street businesses with larger department stores. It was easier to hang a “Be back soon — fire duty” sign on the front of an independent shop than it was to get spur-of- the-moment permission to leave a shift at, say, a Best Buy or Costco.
In Accomack, C. Ray Pruitt, the director of public safety, personally had several explanations for the decline of fire volunteers, all of which mirrored the national data on enrollment decline. Pruitt’s department was responsible for maintaining the volunteer firefighter rosters and organizing the annual training. He’d also been a firefighter himself, because his father was, and his grandfather was. He could remember when volunteers were so abundant that it wasn’t unusual to have twenty-five or thirty men respond to a single fire call. In his youth, people went to the firehouses the way they went to bars, as places to unwind, gossip, feel plugged into the community. The problem, as Pruitt saw it, was that people were now plugged into everything else: iPhones, iPads, Xboxes, Netflix. People got their community through Facebook and their jolts of adrenaline through World of WarCraft. They didn’t need to risk their lives, unpaid, with a fire department. And he saw people today taking on second or third jobs just to make ends meet. He saw them too busy to coach their children’s Little League games, and too busy to volunteer with the PTA, and if they were too busy for those things, they were too busy to volunteer to be roused from bed in the middle of the night to drive to the fire station. Instead of twenty-five men per company for a fire, Pruitt might see six or seven.
But now, here it was in 2012, and suddenly, firehouses were again at the center of Accomack County’s social life. Each night as the fires mounted, parades of thankful citizens stopped by with cases of Gatorade, packets of instant coffee and hot chocolate, endless boxes of Nature Valley granola bars, and, once they learned that firefighters used it to clean the hoses — endless bottles of Mr. Clean dish soap.
November had barely passed when the young men of the Tasley station decided that their regular way of doing things needed to be revisited. It didn’t make sense for them to all go to sleep in their own beds when they knew they would just be wakened by their pagers again a few hours later. There were fires almost every night. What would make more sense would be to just sleep at the firehouse. There were several young men of Tasley: Bryan, who was George Applegate’s son and Charlie Smith’s half-brother, who repaired cars and coached a youth hockey league. Richie, the extra-large brother of Shannon, who hadn’t ever meant to become a firefighter. He’d only gone through the training to keep a friend company, but the friend lost interest and Richie, more and more, liked the idea of having something meaningful to do. A guy named Chris. A guy everyone called “Kitchens.”
Richie and Shannon were both born on the Eastern Shore. Their parents had been, too, but they’d moved to Massachusetts for a spell when Richie was in high school and when they moved back, it was right in the stage of life where everyone Richie had grown up with seemed to have either paired off already, or be interested primarily in going to bars to facilitate pairing off. Richie didn’t drink — he’d never been a fan of the way alcohol made him feel, and he was painfully shy around girls. He hated when people fought or didn’t get along, as they were prone to do at bars. The Tasley Fire Company seemed like a cure for all of this. Instant camaraderie, with people who wanted to volunteer to do good, and a place to go, and engines to fix, and equipment to maintain, and essentially a way of life, ready-made, that would happily suck up as much time as Richie was willing to put into it. He lived in Onancock, about a five-minute drive away, but he volunteered with Tasley because he knew the people better. After a week of arsons, racing up Tasley Road in the middle of the night to drive the tankers and engines, Richie was the first to move in, with a laundry basket full of clothes. A few days later, Chris and Kitchens and a couple other guys started staying there, too, with their own laundry baskets.
Some of the firehouses had nice bunk rooms, with little nightstands next to twin beds with hospital corners. These were mostly the firehouses that also housed paid EMTs, with a guaranteed round-the-clock ambulance response. Tasley didn’t have EMTs, Tasley’s bunk room was a crawl space with four-foot-tall ceilings, which was mostly used for storage but into which somebody had, at one point, crammed a few camp beds in a hopeful attempt at accommodations.
The Tasley boys slept there a few nights, acquired more than a few bruises on their heads, and determined that instead of sleeping in the closet, they’d just bring sleeping bags into the main meeting space. It had mildewed blue carpeting and a heating system whose two settings were frigid or boiling, and whose walls were plastered, inch by inch, with photographs and placards of the firefighters who had been serving Tasley for eighty-five years.
They ran out of couch space and some of them started sleeping in chairs. The group would arrive together, and sleep together, and if they needed something to eat, they would try to do that together, too, so that when a call came through they would already be in the same car. Waitresses at Panzetti’s Pizza and Waffles got used to seeing large groups of tired men scramble away from the table, pies untouched, bill unpaid, promising to come back the next day to settle up. There were a few movies at the firehouse, stuffed in a filing cabinet. Someone brought over a copy of Backdraft, a movie about a serial arsonist and the firefighters trying to stop him, but it was decided that the 1991 Ron Howard film hadn’t held up so well. They really preferred Ladder 49, a 2004 film starring Joaquin Phoenix as a firefighter trapped in a burning building and John Travolta as the colleague trying to save him. Richie had a PlayStation that he brought in along with a selection of video games, mostly fighting related, or about war.
This, for a group of twentysomething men, became their own personal arson schedule: come to the fire house, play video games, get called for a fire, play more video games, post something on Facebook or YouTube, get called for another fire. It was easier not to sleep sometimes, to instead remain in a perpetual state of wiry adrenaline. They played video games in teams, in which the group of guys from Tasley could challenge a group of guys from somewhere else in the country. It got to the point where nobody wanted to play them because nobody could beat them because nobody else’s minds had melded like theirs. In war-themed games, Bryan Applegate became known for always carrying a Bouncing Betty, a landmine that launched into the air and detonated three feet off the ground, killing his adversaries. The other players would hear the telltale click and say, “GodDAMN it!”
So one offshoot of the arsons was that the firefighters in town came the closest they ever would to an exalted state of holy heroism; the other offshoot was that the men of Tasley became singularly good at playing Call of Duty.
In the middle of all of this, there were fires. There was the fire that was two fires, across the street from each other, one a raging beast that the firemen put out only to realize that the second had been quietly burning the whole time, too. There was the fire where the engine Jeff Beall was driving got there first and Beall, having a fire hose but no way to fill it with water, left the back end of the hose tied around the tree, awaiting a tanker for it to attach to. “I wrapped my hose around a tree!” he kept bellowing into the radio to the men from Onancock, who were a few miles behind and who broke into giggles when they got to the scene and saw the tree tied up like a birthday present. There was the fire where the chief from the Onley Department finished dinner with his family, looked at the clock, picked up his pager and jokingly declared, “Now’s the time!” and the pager went off in his hand.
The stockpiles of Gatorade got bigger, and the sense of community outrage and pride got larger, and the firefighters became intimately acquainted with the baking skills of every sympathetic household on the Eastern Shore. And an airplane hangar burned down, and a big pile of tires burned down, and an old empty restaurant burned down, and abandoned house after abandoned house, and there was always something burning.
From American Fire by Monica Hesse. Copyright © 2017 by Monica Hesse. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.